Leonora Monson: The Strand Statues

Audio Version

Read by David Brown

Text Version

The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.

In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.

After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.

Side by side images of the statues before and after dilapidation.

Left: The statues in situ on the Strand before 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_009). Right: The same statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_020). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.

Side by side images of the building before and after dilapidation.

Left: View of the BMA building on the corner of the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_005). Right: The statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_006). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.

Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.

The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.

Side by side images of two of the statues before dilapidation.

Left: “Maternity” in situ on the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_044). Right: Cast for “Nature” destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1907 (CON_B07186_F003_054). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.

Side by side images of a statue before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: “Infancy” in situ, prior to 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_060). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Infancy” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_064). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Side by side images of a Epstein next to one of the statues before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: A model for “Matter” in Epstein’s workshop (CON_B07186_F003_050). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Matter” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_067). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?


Leonora Monson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Hannah Wilson: Visions of London

Audio Version

Read by Anne Hutchings

Text Version

Over the last few centuries, London has inspired architects to imagine how they would reshape the city to their own distinct styles. After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren proposed a new street layout for London, with streets dividing building blocks into rectangles around St Paul’s Cathedral but branching out from central points in the areas east and west of this. This plan was never carried out and the majority of the old irregular street layouts were maintained. Since then architects, either as individuals or groups, have presented their visions of how they would alter the skyline, buildings and roads of London. Many of these designs were never built and now all that remains of these abandoned plans are the drawings the architects produced.

Some of these designs can be found in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute, alongside collections of photographs showing buildings and monuments across the globe. The collection’s three boxes on the architectural drawings of 20th-century British architects reveal three planned design projects for buildings and streets which were never fulfilled which show great variation in their visions of a reshaped city with differing architectural inspirations from classical and romantic to more futuristic.

Sir Christopher Wren’s plan of London

Sir Christopher Wren’s plan of London. CON_B04591_F005_016. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Classical

 

Design for the Selfridges Tower

Design for the Selfridges Tower. CON_B04816_F006_021. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Model of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Jona Lendering [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This monumental tower was intended to be built on the roof of the Selfridges store on Oxford Street and was designed by architect Philip Tilden in 1918. His other completed designs often included restorations and extensions of politicians’ houses although none of those quite matched the scale and ambition of this project. Not much is known about why Selfridge had commissioned this design or the exact reasons for why it was never built but it shows a vision of great grandeur and is reminiscent in some ways to the tombs for rulers and kings from the Classical period such as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus which is believed to have had a similar large podium with colonnaded areas and sculpted figures but the proposed tower appears to be larger in scale than even these monumental tombs.

The proposed tower would have fitted stylistically with the pre-existing Selfridges building which features more Ionic columns along the shop front, conforming to the concepts of “Beaux-Arts” architecture which was particularly popular in the 19th century. This was achieved by including classical and neoclassical decoration while using more modern features such as steel frame interior.

The expense of such a construction may have contributed to it never being built but its existence would have also radically changed the skyline of London at the time. The drawing makes the tower appear to be around 4 to 5 times taller than the main building. Since Selfridges is already five storeys high, the tower would have equalled or potentially surpassed the 111m high St Paul’s Cathedral which would have been the tallest building in London in 1918 and had been since 1710. Even today, it would have probably ranked among the hundred tallest buildings in London.

Futuristic

 

Design of Bond Street

Design of Bond Street. CON_B04816_F006_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

20 years later, the Glass Age Town Planning Committee proposed their own vision of a changed London. This time, these architects were not limited to a single building but instead proposed plans for rebuilding the entirety of both Bond Street and the Strand. Luckily for the Courtauld, Maxwell Fry seems to have allowed Somerset House to remain intact in the upper right corner of his drawing. Alongside a reimagined Bond Street by Howard Robertson, these designs formed part of the February 1939 issue of Architectural Review. The two images in the Conway Library would have been among designs for several other parts of the country including Princes Street in Edinburgh and parts of Liverpool, all depicting buildings using glass as their main exterior material.

The large scale destruction of older buildings required for these plans to happen and a lack of any form of planning permission are both factors which prevented these designs from becoming a reality. But the purpose of the committee itself was initially mainly to be part of an advertising campaign by Pilkington Brothers Ltd., a glass production company, to both promote their product as a building material and also present concepts of how buildings in the 21st century could look with further developments in technology and modern architectural styling. These designs could subsequently be as radical and unrealistic as the architects wanted because they were so unlikely to ever be built. Yet it still presents an interesting insight into how architects in the 1930s may have thought architecture could develop and how they imagined a future London could look.

Design of the Strand

Design of the Strand. CON_B04814_F006_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Modern Strand (Google Earth)

Modern Strand (Google Earth)

The view of the Strand now is different to how the Glass Age Committee would have seen it but it may not have changed as much as they would have expected. The formation of tower blocks has never occurred in this area although the redevelopment of Charing Cross station later in the 20th century increased the amount of glass in its design. The skyline of London is also now dominated by glass skyscrapers, most prominently the Shard. In some ways, the Glass Age committee’s ambitions for greater use of glass in building came true, although not necessarily in the ways they had imagined or proposed in these drawings.

Romanticism

Less than a decade after the designs which aimed to promote modernist architecture and technology to 1930s Britain, the Royal Academy Planning Committee took a very different approach to how they would redesign London.

Drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral

Drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral. CON_B04816_F006_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Modern St Paul’s Cathedral

Modern St Paul’s Cathedral (Google Earth).

This picturesque drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral was published as part of a book, London Replanned, by the Royal Academy in 1942 in response to 1940 and 1941 bombings of London causing large scale damage. Unlike the clear and precise images of Bond Street and the Strand produced by the Glass Age Town Planning Committee, this pencil drawing is much more delicate with atmospheric clouds, a focus on more traditional architecture and featuring several small steamboats in the foreground. This image could depict a Victorian or Edwardian period London, a contrast to the emphasis on modernity proposed by other architects only a few years before and has much greater stylistic links to drawings and paintings by 18th and 19th century Romantic artists.

Although it is the only image from the Royal Academy’s book stored in the Conway Library, it would have been part of a building project even more extensive than that of the Pilkington commission. Among their plans for most of central London were a new road layout around St Paul’s, wide roads around Piccadilly Circus and a redevelopment of Hyde Park.

Royal Academy Hyde Park Corner drawing (www.royalacademy.org.uk)

Royal Academy Hyde Park Corner drawing (www.royalacademy.org.uk).

Modern Hyde Park Corner (Google Earth)

Modern Hyde Park Corner (Google Earth).

These drawings in the architectural drawing collection of the Conway Library give a snapshot into how different architects and groups thought London could be redesigned and how these views changed throughout the first half of the 20th century in response to the emergence of modernist architecture or the damage to London in the Second World War presenting the possibility of a significant redevelopment. The drawings of Bond Street, the Strand and St Paul’s also form parts of wider projects to redesign large proportions of London which were never fulfilled and little evidence remains of their ideas other than in these types of drawings. When considered together, these designs present interesting contrasts between a structure with links to classical features alongside more contemporary building materials, plans which imagined how the future London would look and a redesign of London combining traditional buildings with large expansions of roads and parks. If any of these plans had been carried out, they would have significantly reshaped the layout and design of London as it is today.


Hannah Wilson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

 

References:

    • Parnell S (2014) In praise of advertising. Architectural Review.
    • Pilkington Brothers Ltd. (1939) Architectural Review.
    • Royal Academy (1942) London Replanned. Royal Academy of Arts: London.